The Tudors: an Appraisal and an Appreciation

Editorial Note:  posting has been light as the semester has now begun in earnest, but expect more in the next week.  Also, the following post presumes you have seen the show!


I have been meaning to write a post on the show The Tudors for sometime, and now seems as good a time as any. This is partly due to inspiration, in the form of a blog post on two shows about the Borgias by an anonymous blogger whose blog is called ex urbe, and features lengthy, wonderfully in depth posts about Rome, and which I heartily commend to you.  This blogger is also an history professor, and so I took more than a passing interest in his/her insights into the Borgias (most of which I found very astute, with a couple of caveats).  I have not seen either show about the Borgias, and since I am not an Italian Renaissance scholar (alas), merely one of early modern England, the Tudors will have to do (especially since I’ve actually seen it!)  Shall we?

TV, Film & History:  A Few Remarks

Over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that, despite all the potential drawbacks of having HBO or Showtime delve into the realm of historical fiction, these types cable shows are the best vehicle for a meaty film drama centered on real historical events.  This is so, partly because one can be so much more thorough in a format where  essentially you are producing a fifty minute feature film every week.  Whereas in a normal feature film, you have at most two or three hours to flesh out the historical elements you might need to communicate to your audience on top of trying to sustain a dramatic narrative over the same time frame.  This is not easy to do, and combine this with the lack of interest most filmmakers have in historical accuracy, and the result is not often pretty, in historical terms.   A filmmaker’s first priority is to make an entertaining film, not give a visual history lesson, and if he or she is forced to it, the history is going to lose out.  And it is common for talented directors to make highly entertaining films that are complete nonsense historically speaking (i.e., BraveheartKingdom of Heaven, etc.)

The extra film time allowed the producers of The Tudors to spend more time and effort on the background for certain aspects of Tudor life that I found laudable, and which I will detail shortly. But one can see the difference between what one can do in a feature film and what one can do in a long running cable series, can best illustrated by comparing The Tudors with the film A Man for All Seasons.   That film, beloved by papists like myself, does in some limited ways give you glimpses of the historical Thomas More.  In one scene, both in Robert Bolt’s play and in the film, Cardinal Wolsey is berating More for not being realistic about Henry VIII’s need for an heir, now that Katherine of Aragon, his wife, is clearly not going to produce one:

WOLSEY:  Then the King needs a son; I repeat, what are you going to do about it?

MORE:   I pray for it daily.

WOLSEY:  God’s death, he means it…that thing out there’s [referring to Anny Boleyn] at least fertile, Thomas.

MORE:  But she’s not his wife.

WOLSEY:  No, Catherine’s his wife, and she’s as barren as a brick.  Are you going to pray for a miracle?

MORE:  There are precedents.

This exchange (though it probably overstates Wolsey cynicism)  captures More’s piety and his legalism almost perfectly, in only a few words.  And there are other moments in the play and film when Bolt allows the historical More (or at least, William Roper’s More) to speak unencumbered by the playwright’s words, most notably in the final trial scenes.  But on the whole (and Bolt admits as much in the preface to the published edition of his play), the film uses More’s story as a mouthpiece for ideas he never would have countenanced, namely, what are essentially existentialist (and Protestant) beliefs about individual conscience set against a tyrannical state.  More, as his modern critics never fail to point out, aided the investigation of heresy toward the end of his tenure as Lord Chancellor (I have read different versions of the number of cases More helped investigate, from as little as three to as many as seven).  And in any case, his concern was the authority of the Church, the “common conscience of all Christendom,” and not the private individual in isolation from tradition and authority. This comes out in the trial scenes, but is at odds with the rest of the film, where More tells the Duke of Norfolk of the Pope’s authority that “it is not important that I believe it, but that I believe it,” a sentiment More would have rejected whole-heartedly.  Bolt’s play and the film were only tangentially about the historical person Thomas More, and more about creating a 1960s anti-hero out of the elements of his life story.

The Tudors, on the other hand, had ample time to delve into More’s character, and apparently, a greater desire to show the full range of his personality.  More the loyal churchman comes through admirably, as does More the martyr, the counselor and scholar.  But the show also made a point of emphasizing More’s heresy hunting activities.  In one scene, he is shown creepily interrogating a Protestant printer, and attends his execution in another.  As it happens, this is inaccurate, as More did not attend any of the executions, though he certainly did relish trying to oppose heresy (according to Peter Ackroyd, one of his most recent biographers, his tombstone testified that More was “molestas” to heretics).   Nor does the show make clear how out of the ordinary it was for More to do so; he was tasked with this office by none other than Henry VIII himself, something that was unusual because it was normally the province of clerics and theologians to determine matters of heresy, not laymen.  (I have mentioned this before, in a post on the Inquisition.)  Thus the real novelty and irony of More’s persecution of heretics  is that More, in agreeing to do so, was helping the very Tudor state that would be used to destroy the institution (the Church) he was to die for, and that in his desperation to oppose heresy, led him to sanction the destruction of human beings, acts that were at odds with his otherwise deserved reputation for virtue.   Nevertheless, the show made what I thought was a good effort to show this complexity in More, and not merely make him into the hero of a modern narrative alien to his actual beliefs.  At least, it certainly did so much more effectively than did A Man For All Seasons.

It is typical of Hollywood productions to make myths, and really, of all humanity in general; we love to tell stories, no matter their truth, and I can hardly blame a director for choosing what makes a good story rather than trying to lecture his audience on history.  Cynthia Herrup, a past historian of the AHA, once wrote about the show  The Tudors (in what venue I cannot now recall) in a rather snobby fashion, that it was merely myth making for the times, as if historians don’t often do unintentionally what filmmakers do intentionally (or alas, intentionally, as has often been the case with the Reformation–Whig history anyone?)  It is true, however, the two aims are not necessarily conflicting, and in the past many filmmakers have simply not bothered to try.  This is why I am writing this post, because, as far as I can tell, the makers of the The Tudors made a strenuous effort to get the pertinent historical context of the times right, at least in some crucial respects.  And this deserves credit, no matter how mythical the show may be in toto.


The Bad:  The Sexy Tudors Sex Sex Sex

Did you know that Henry VIII had six wives?  Or that he schtupped just about any woman he wanted to?  Or that their was raunchy, illict sex going on at Henry’s court?  Do you really care?  Yes? Then you probably loved the series, since that was the most consistent aspect of the show, and the least surprising thing about it.  The cable shows that are historically based naturally have to cater to their audiences, in this case, a Showtime audience.  (The HBO/BBC production Rome, which I will also be reviewing, was much more extreme in this regard.)  Essentially, The Tudors was basically a soap opera set in the early sixteenth century.  There is no denying this, and one of the things they played up beyond historical credibility were the sexual escapades of the rich and famous.


In the past, everyone was sexy for fifteen minutes, at least in The Tudors

But didn’t Henry VIII shag with lusty abandon?  Didn’t his courtiers?  Absolutely.  When Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, was caught in adultery and executed, Henry had Parliament pass a law stating that no one could become queen unless she was a virgin.  The French ambassador noted that this provision would exclude most of the ladies of the court.  That part of the show is realistic enough.  What isn’t are several episodes where Henry or courtiers “have their way” with lower class characters.  For example, in one episode, Henry is travelling through the forest with his train, and comes along a newlywed couple; The bride, naturally, turns out to be gorgeous, and Henry takes her back to his castle for a roll in the hay.  Perhaps such a thing happened, but I am unaware Henry VIII ever did so, and likely it never happened in that way, for the simple fact that sexual attraction is in large measure culturally conditioned.  Grabbing random peasants off the road to go boink them sounds sexy to modern ears, I guess; but considering the lower classes likely didn’t practice the best of hygiene, one doubts their superiors were in a hurry to take them to bed.  In another scene, one of Henry VIII’s courtiers rapes a country house wife in the woods while her husband is gone.  The same reasons for this being unlikely apply in that case as well.   Even if such things did occur, they likely did not occur with the sort of frequency that they do in The Tudors.

The beautiful people:  if you weren't good looking, you just didn't exist in Tudor England.

The beautiful people: if you weren’t good looking, you just didn’t exist in Tudor England.

Those are the most egregious examples I could think of, but there are others.  For some unknown reason, the producers decided that Thomas Tallis, the famous court composer, should be gay, despite the fact that he was not.  In another episode, the poet Thomas Wyatt seduces the young, nubile serving girl of the (by that episode) dismissed Catherine of Aragon, and she kills herself.  Now, people commit suicided in Tudor often enough, and though I am no expert on that particular subject, I daresay there probably a few women who committed suicide in such circumstances.  But I’m also guessing they were fairly rare, which is why they attracted comment in the first place, and it is typical that in order to sex up the show the producers chose to play up the more sensational aspects of the time period.  In yet another scene, one of the King’s spies, whose name escapes me, taunts the young Mary Tudor by asking her if she knew how to play the game of “cunnilingus,” a word whose meaning she clearly did not know.  Again, these scenes serve little purpose, other than that of titillating the audience.

Again, I am not here to complain.  When I say something is “bad” in a historical sense of the term in a film, I mean that there are, either by incompetence, or in the case of all the sex in The Tudors, by design, things in the film that are historically nonsensical.  The fact of the matter is, however, that the oversexing of the show was the price for its being made, one which, given its virtues, I think was worth it.  It has other defects, though none so serious as this.  At times, the personality of Henry or other main characters was altered, I believe to make him more sympathetic.  The most notable example of this was that in the show, he openly regrets having executed More, while in reality it was Henry who insisted on his execution when Thomas Cranmer tried to intercede on behalf of More and John Fisher.  (Closer to the mark was More’s own quip that if it could gain him a castle in France, Henry would surely cut his head off.)  Though, the producers of the show did not try to hide Henry’s faults, by any means.  I have probably forgotten other instances as well, but those are my main quibbles.

And so what?  This is only a historical soap opera, right?  Well, it would have been, except somebody took their history seriously.


The Ugly:  “On the Nose” History

If you know anything about film or screenwriting, dialogue or writing that is painfully obvious, or that leaves nothing to be developed by the characters in a scene, is sometimes called “on the nose” writing.  It’s when the writer tries to make clear what is going on in a story to his audience by being painfully obvious.  The same thing happens in The Tudors at the level of historical background, in that some of what goes on and or spoken in the dialogue has little to do with the development of storyline, but rather with conveying historical information to the audience.  Now, what I am about to say is actually to the credit of the makers of The Tudors in many respects, but it also makes the show a bit clunky at times in terms of its pacing.  This is also a strength of the film in another sense, which I will come to shortly, but it can be weakness also, if only for the historically knowledgeable.  For example, a friend of mine points out that in one episode, More makes a speech in which he begins by saying that “I, as a humanist, believe in…”  This kind address simply would not have been made by More, Erasmus or any other person we deem as humanists today, and it is indeed kind of clunky to listen to.  It is also painfully obvious (i.e., on the nose) by the standards Ph.Ds and graduate student types with knowledge of this period.  Of course, the show is written for a wide release type of audience, and not for people such as myself.   I don’t want to belabor this point too much, but it is a valid, if limited criticism one can make of the show.

I could also point out other, more minor criticisms of the show; some critics have complained about the costumes, which don’t necessarily fit the era of Henry VIII’s reign; there is  a scene in which a bishop of the Church of England who supports Henry VIII’s divorce tries to convince Thomas More to come to the wedding, and the bishop is dressed in the modern clerical dress of a bishop of the Church of England.  (One can tell this by the fact that some of his garments are purple, something I am pretty sure bishops did not wear in the 1530s.)  And of course, every character is young and attractive (even a young version of Mary Tudor, who is blue eyed and pretty in the show).  But if one has to choose something to get inaccurate in a film, it is better it be some of the physical elements, such as clothing and the like, rather than the beliefs of the people who inhabit the world that the film depicts.


The Good:  Dramatizing History

Now, for the good stuff.  What did the show get right?  Well, first of all, let us praise the show’s producers for being on the nose, historically speaking, especially with regards to Season 2, when most of the Reformation episodes took place.  In virtually every episode of show, in every season, there is at least one “on the nose” scene where two people are talking to each other, obviously for no dramatic reason but in order to fill the audience in on background they otherwise would not have.   While this may be problematic from a dramatic standpoint, from an historical point of view, it shows how much the makers of The Tudors thought it mattered that the audience have historical background (most of which was, as far as I recall, accurate).

What makes this especially impressive to me is that, unlike say Rome, where the backdrop for the show is the fall of the Republic, the material for much of The Tudors had to do with subjects that are often difficult to dramatize.  One doesn’t need much exposition to explain a civil war to a modern audience, as in Rome, but the Reformation is a whole other matter.   Dramatizing the break between Pompey and Caeasar into a film is not that difficult;  dramatizing the difference between Catholic and Lutheran soteriologies, or between Catholic and Protestant ecclesiology, is exceedingly difficult.  The show did so about as well as could be expected.  Often enough, it came in the form of clunky dialogue, but they got across the essential vision of More, Henry, and, refreshingly, someone like Thomas Cromwell, without dumbing it down.   To give an example, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s secretary who helped him make the Reformation happen, was portrayed by Robert Bolt as a scheming, almost atheistic Machiavellian, whereas in reality he was a genuine Protestant with Lutheran sympathies.  This was portrayed fairly well, I thought, by contrast, in the show.  This is no mean achievement, and they deserve much kudos for it.

And this historical background that the show delivered was, as I noted above, for the most part accurate.  It is largely, from what I can tell, based off the best of recent scholarship.  This comes through in the scene where Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s archbishop of Canterbury, is having dinner with his wife and another nobleman sympathetic to the Protestant cause.  The scene ends with the revelation that Cranmer has been transporting his wife around in a cart, in order to avoid her being seen (he married her in Germany, and this was before Henry had made the break with Rome).  This little detail is quite true, as it was given notoriety by Diarmid McCulloch in his biography of Cranmer.


Henry’s ermine might not always have been accurate in the Tudors, but his personality was for the most part

Another example of the series care for historical accuracy is the treatment of the Reformation among the people of England, views of which have shifted quite dramatically in the past thirty years.   The execution of John Fisher, the lone bishop to hold out against Henry’s break with Rome, is a good example of this:  in the scene, Fisher gives a speech in which he enjoins the people present to love the king, and, in a dramatic gesture, asks for their prayers as he goes to his death.  When he does, the crowd starts shouting “God bless you, Cardinal Fisher!” until he is killed.  (Fisher was made a cardinal just before his death, but was executed “before the hat was on,” so the saying went.) The scene itself seems made up to me, but this is part of its genius, in my estimation.   It dramatizes, in a minute or two of screen time, a true fact:  that Fisher was very popular with the people of London, widely known for his preaching.  He was scheduled to be executed on June 24, but when the government realized this was the feast of John the Baptist, they moved the execution up a day to avoid drawing too many parallels with the biblical story, which Londoners knew quite well.  The same care was taken in the case of the Pilgrimage of Grace, in season three.  The Pilgrimage of Grace was a mostly non-violent reaction against the closing of the monasteries in the North of England, in which thousands of people marched south, bearing the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, to protest the closing of the monasteries.  The rising nearly toppled Henry’s regime, and his Machiavellian destruction of its leaders likely saved the dynasty for posterity.  An emphasis on the largely top down nature of the Reformation is something many (though not all) historians have stressed in the wake of several decades of historical revisionist works in the field, and the makers of the series did fairly admirably in portraying this aspect of it.

Are there slips?  Certainly.  No one should expect perfection from filmmakers in regards to historical dramas.  What audiences should expect is that they make an effort to acquaint themselves not only with the basic history of the period their films/shows are set in, but to also take seriously the beliefs of the people they are portraying, without treating them with condescension or disdain.  (For an example of such condescension and disdain in films set in the later Tudor period, see the film Elizabeth and its successor, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, which are truly egregious in this regard.)  The Tudors does this well, and deserve credit for it, seeing as the opposite is so much more common in historical films.


The Drama

Okay, so its a pretty well done (for the most part) depiction of the Tudor period (at least, for its core beliefs, if not in every single detail).  Why is this is series dramatic?  Why is it good television?

First, as I said before, it is basically a soap opera; the court intrigues, sexual escapades, and political machinations provide the basic fodder for most episodes of the show.   As I mentioned above, however, the material they worked with is not necessarily conducive to great drama, and especially after Season 2, which concluded the Reformation parts of the show, I thought The Tudors lost a lot of its dramatic intensity for much of Season 3.  But the makers of the show managed to make the most of the last years of Henry VIII’s reign, and it ended on what I thought was a much stronger note.

That’s probably another thing I should mention at this point:  The Tudors is misnamed, since it mostly deals with the life and reign of Henry VIII; the show never gets to the reigns of Mary, Edward or Elizabeth, though the two daughters make appearances in the show.  I imagine that the producers of the show decided it was easier to tell the story of Henry VIII than to embrace the whole of the Tudor dynasty, but I was a bit disappointed when it ended with Henry’s reign.  I guess one can only expect so much out of an historical drama.

The cast of the series did a fine job for the most part, though I didn’t think there were necessarily any amazing performances among the cast.  Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII gave the show’s producers the young, good looking version of Henry they naturally required for their historical soap opera.  I can’t say he is the greatest actor in the world, but he did one thing that I found impressive.  He managed to convey the often manic energy that Henry possessed on screen throughout length of the series, no mean feat given that so much of the show was focused on Henry’s character.  The rest of the cast mostly changes throughout the series, as it spans nearly thirty five years:  Jeremy North is a good actor, and though no one will forget Paul Scholfield, he brought an edge and an intensity to the messier vision of More that the show presented, which I thought was refreshing.   Other choices weren’t quite as inspired; Sam Neill was adequate as Wolsey, though I just couldn’t help thinking he was too thin to be the Cardinal.  The less said about Peter O’Toole’s performance as Pope Paul III the better, I think.  Henry Cavill, the current incarnation of Superman, played Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, one of only two other characters beside Henry to span the entire series.  Over the course of the show, Brandon goes from Henry’s young boon companion into his reliable but distant servant; it is through Savill’s character that one charts the changes that takes in England over the course of the series, and by the end Brandon openly tells another character that he wishes things were still they way they were before the Reformation.  (In reality, he was someone who supported Henry’s policies and benefited from the seizure of monastic and church property.) Natalie Dormer plays the sexed up and very ambitious Anne Boleyn well enough.  I wish I could say something about the other female characters in the show, but they are all so overshadowed by the figure of Henry that they tend to get lost in my mind.  I suppose my favorite performance in the series, beside that of North and Rhys-Meyers, was that of Anthony Brophy, who played the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys.  I thought he brought a dignity and gravitas to the role which was refreshing, and from what I can tell, more accurate than the scheming religious hypocrite Chapuys that Bolt made him out to be in his play.

The main cast of the Tudors from the first season (from left to right):  Thomas More (Jeremy North), Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill), Queen Catherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill), Margaret Tudor (Gabrielle Anwar), Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington), Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer)  George Boleyn (Padraic Delaney)

The main cast of the Tudors from the first season (from left to right): Thomas More (Jeremy North), Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill), Queen Catherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill), Margaret Tudor (Gabrielle Anwar), Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington), Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) George Boleyn (Padraic Delaney)

Ultimately, one of the best things film or long running TV series like the Tudors is how it can do one of two things:  1), dramatize historical personalities, such as Henry VIII, and 2) dramatize great conflicts by personalizing them, making them part of a character’s make up.  The Tudors did both, at times, excellently.   As to the first, whatever else one can say about Henry VIII, and as a papist I don’t normally have much to say that is good of him, the show and Rhys-Meyers managed to bring out his energy and dynamism, both good and evil, that made him so ultimately beloved as a king, despite all the mayhem he caused.  I’ll admit, even I felt sympathetic for Henry by the end of the series, perhaps even because of all his many faults; his appetites, his obsessions, even if they were destructive as they all too often were, seemed to humanize him, make him relatable.  I’m certain this must have been why the historical Henry VIII was so successful, and beloved by so many.  It is to the show’s credit they were able to make this come alive on screen.

As to the second, it is sometimes difficult to dramatize great changes in history, because they do not often happen as a single, dramatic event or series of events, as in the French Revolution, but occur as part of a process.  (We await the day, for example, when some intrepid writer will find a suitable way to dramatize the Industrial Revolution.)  In this case, though there were dramatic moments involved, I was most impressed by how the show captured the beliefs that were at the heart of the Reformation.  Perhaps my favorite example of this was a scene in which, at the point at which Henry was finishing the legal break with Rome, Chapuys, attempts to enlist the aid of Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, to help him change Henry’s mind.  Now, in the series, the actor who plays Thomas Boleyn makes him into a most frightfully evil character, a man who whores out his daughters in order to gain power, and you hate him the moment he appears on screen.  (How much this captures the real Thomas Boleyn I am not sure.)

In any case, in the brief scene I am talking about, Chapuys is trying to run down Boleyn as he makes his way through Henry’s court.  I cannot recall the exact words, but in the exchange, Chapuys shouts to him somethinglike, “Lord Boleyn, for the love of Christ and his Holy Apostles, please help me tell his Majesty–” and Boleyn swiftly rounds on Chapuys, and with a deadly cold look tells him “The Apostles were all frauds who wanted to take people’s money.”  Chapuys is shocked at this blasphemy, and crosses himself in a gesture of self defense.  It is a really wonderful, dramatic moment in the series, when you see two powerful currents in late medieval collide in the persons of Chapuys and Boleyn, late medieval piety confronted with late medieval anti-clericalism, both of which were necessary elements in the drama of the Reformation.



To sum up, The Tudors is a highly successful, historically based soap opera, but one which takes its historical source material seriously, treats the characters and their beliefs with respect and accuracy for the most part, and does so while sustaining dramatic interest throughout a four year long series.  This type of cable channel drama is all the rage now in the realm of non-historical shows (Breaking Bad, etc.), and there are and have been several successful shows that feature historical subjects.  In my next post, I will discuss what I take to be the best of these shows that I have seen so far, the aforementioned series Rome.



Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on September 9, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Tudors: an Appraisal and an Appreciation”

  1. An excellent analysis. I must admit that the bit where Henry picks up a peasant and takes her home for a quick shag is probably the most cringeworthy moment. It really does nothing other than suggest that he was some kind of sex crazed maniac who couldn’t pass a woman without sleeping with her, even though it establishes his horror of infection which apparently doesn’t extend to having sex with a woman who had probably never washed. Also it didn’t do much for the morals of women at the time!

    A Thomas Culpeper *did* rape a park keepers wife, though it’s thought that it was his brother Thomas (they were such an imaginative lot) rather than the king’s personal favourite. But you are right in that having sex with someone far beneath your social position just wouldn’t have happened as a general rule.

    I found while watching The Tudors that I was more amused at the attempts to force blatant historical facts into the storytelling than the exaggeration of the facts in the first place. When Anne Boleyn announces completely out of context that she ‘wished all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea’ I couldn’t help but laugh. Someone read history book at least, but oh lord that delivery :/

  2. Thank you for your kind comments. I was unaware that Culpepper had done that (or been accused of it, at any rate), though I am not surprised. And you are certainly right that the show did try to force basic facts into the sultry soap opera template they were using for the show; the “I, as a humanist” line of More’s was the prime example for me. There were a number of howlers that I left out of the original post, and they were quite obvious when they did occur. But the show surprised me though, in how much effort it did take to get some of those facts right, especially concerning the Reformation. A friend of mine recommended the show to me, and I was a little skeptical at first, but in the end was glad I took the time to see it.

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